The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected every aspect of our lives, and it has had a particular effect on the world of research. Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS) is coordinating PAVE’s research on online and offline (de)radicalisation, focusing on four countries: Kosovo, North Macedonia, Lebanon and Tunisia. There is a brilliant team of researchers who have been doing amazing work and are fully committed to the process, including Sfax University (USF), the Berghof Foundation Office in Lebanon, and ELIAMEP. It stands to reason, considering the restrictive measures taken by the governments in the four countries to curb the spread of COVID-19, that our fieldwork plans and research have been affected, and this article is a reflection of the experience of the KCSS’s research in Kosovo.
Before outlining some of the challenges, it is also important to note that for every researcher, especially those following a qualitative approach that draws on ethnography to some degree, extraordinary situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic also present a unique opportunity. The PAVE project focuses on understanding the features of communities’ vulnerability and resilience, and the COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed some very interesting practices of communities building their resilience. For instance, amid growing disinformation and fake news against COVID-19 vaccines, community and religious leaders have played an important role in encouraging vaccination. Additionally, the idea that the entire world is dealing with a common challenge has instilled a sense of being in this together as a global community.
With respect to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected and altered research plans, in the case of Kosovo and the KCSS’s experience, the first issue that came up was what we can call a change of priorities. So when we were approaching experts or public officials for potential interviews about the issue of (de)radicalisation, the reactions were often disbelief on their part that we were pursuing a research project that seemed to be entirely out of touch with the reality of the challenges and problems communities were facing. In other words, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic was the absolute priority and this had transcended the traditional layers of division, such as religious or ethnic identity. For instance, Kosovo accepted 1,000 COVID-19 tests from Serbia in April 2020. For a brief moment, it seemed that the COVID-19 pandemic was helping bring together the governments in the Western Balkans to deal with each other in a rational way, as bilateral disputes and ethnic-political radicalisation took a back seat.
On the ground, the KCSS researchers had to adjust to the changing circumstances and government restrictions. While the COVID-19 pandemic had encouraged communities to think about resilience, it also created a crisis of public trust, amid growing disinformation and fake news online, about how the virus spread, its consequences, whether it was real or not, and so on. Later, these disinformation campaigns focused on vaccination. While the sources of such disinformation were usually outside Kosovo, most Kosovars have access to social media, and more often than not, the news media outlets in Kosovo would unwittingly translate disinformation and help spread panic. In this context, one particular dilemma for the KCSS researchers was whether it would be acceptable to interview people who did not get a COVID-19 vaccine. Additionally, because of the government priority ages for vaccination, most of the KCSS researchers did not qualify for vaccination until the start of July 2021. We believed that the best way forward was to continue with the research but with strict implementation of safety protocols recommended by the health authorities and the government, including wearing a mask at all times and requiring interviewees and focus group participants to do the same.
This approach was followed when we organised the first focus group in the city of Mitrovica in May 2021. To add credibility to the event, we worked with a local NGO, which also helped identify the participants. Community Building Mitrovica (CBM) is a highly reputable organisation that has worked on community issues and reconciliation since 2003. The invitations sent to the focus group participants included not only the information brochure about the project but also practical advice on safety measures to prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus. The meeting room was arranged in a way which allowed for social distancing, and masks and hand sanitiser were provided for all participants. The organisation had all the participants’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses in case any of them contracted the virus in the following days, so that we could inform the authorities and help with identification of individuals who needed to self-isolate.
Another interesting challenge we faced was the reluctance of the people who had now been working at home for some time to have an in-person interview. In such cases, we used Zoom or Skype but also WhatsApp to conduct the interview. However, in some cases, potential interviewees would hesitate to conduct the interview online because they perceived the topic of radicalisation as very sensitive and saw the online space as insecure, with the risk of confidential information being leaked or intercepted. While this challenge is not related to the COVID-19 pandemic – it was there before – the growing disinformation online, with conspiracy theories about COVID-19, exacerbated these perceptions among members of the public who were distrustful of the online space. However, some people’s reluctance to talk to a KCSS researcher about online and offline radicalisation is also linked to an important aspect of research into radicalisation in Kosovo. Because of the overwhelming focus in Kosovo on religious-based radicalisation, this synonymity between Islam and radicalism has been created, and therefore some people feel that any research on radicalisation is inherently intended to show Islam as a violent religion. Some of the preliminary findings from our focus group show that this is one of the major push factors to radicalisation or even violent extremism, especially for young people, who become frustrated with what seem to them to be constant attacks on their religion.
Other technical challenges that our researchers faced included lack of credible contacts at the community level. Some contact persons who were seen as important sources of information were overloaded with other responsibilities or demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic and were unable to respond to our researchers’ requests for interview. This was particularly the case with experts and government officials. There were also a couple of interesting cases when individuals seemed to have had enough of online meetings and interviews, a sort of ‘online fatigue’ but at the same time were not confident to meet people in person for interviews. This can be summed up as ‘Zoom fatigue’, with ‘Zoom’ being a catch-all phrase for all online interactions.
Despite the challenges, the KCSS researchers are moving forward with implementation of the fieldwork plans for interviews and focus groups, but of course doing this research during a pandemic adds an important element of experience that will most likely be reflected in the findings of our research.